Monday, December 10, 2012

The rabbi's addiction

The other week, in preparing a talk on "Clergy Burnout", I came across an old blog post of mine on the topic, with this quote from Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski:

We all need emotional sippuk [emotional satisfaction]… What are our sources? I’m going on record as saying that more than 50%, or perhaps 75% of our emotional input, should come from non-work-related sources, such as family, friends, learning Torah, mitzvos, whatever. Some of us have hobbies, some of us have kinds of things that we like to do for relaxation, whatever. But the work should not be expected to provide – we have a job to do, we have a tafkid to do, fine. But we should not be dependent on our work for the lion’s share of our emotional input, because if we do then we are going to reach burnout… Don’t expect the job to give you the greater part of your sippuk. The greater part of your sippuk should come from other sources…

Rabbi Dr. Twerski then compared a job which is expected to provide fulfillment to a flat iron that is expected to double as a griddle and a space heater. Use an iron as an iron, and the filament will last for ten or twelve years of occasional operation. Use it for these constant purposes, and it will burn out immediately.

My point in citing this was to concur with Rabbi Dr. Twerski, and to add another reason for not seeking emotional satisfaction from the rabbinate, or any job: Because you might not hold that job forever. And yes, I speak from personal experience; stepping away was my choice, but I have been dealing with the difficulty of replacing that satisfaction ever since.

But there is another side to the coin. As much as a rabbi might try to find his satisfaction in his family life or hobbies, the reality is that a healthy rabbinate offers so much that is satisfying. Working with kids, comforting mourners, exposing people to new ideas and new texts, counseling people, distributing tzedakah, getting to know individuals, getting to know a community - every day brings new opportunities for satisfaction, and it can be addictive.
Case in point: While preparing that talk on burnout, I received an email from someone, thanking me for something I did more than ten years ago. I can't divulge the specifics here, but it involved my participating in a Chanukah celebration in a non-observant setting in 2001. The person who wrote to me said she was not observant at the time, but is observant today. While I can't imagine that anything I did at that time was truly transformative, she thought enough of it that she remembered it, and emailed me more than a decade later, so I guess I did something.

Was that email satisfying? You bet! I remember that Chanukah night. I travelled for about an hour each way to participate for only a few minutes. I had been invited as part of a letter that went to every rabbi in the region, and I was the only rabbi who went. I didn't know anyone there. I didn't know whether I would ever be invited back. And I remember wondering, when I left that celebration, whether my participation had been meaningful, or would lead to something meaningful.

So it was great to find out that my presence had meant something to someone. That was real satisfaction. And it made me miss the shul rabbinate all the more.
And therein lies the problem – as I said, I can preach, "Don't seek satisfaction in playing Rabbi," but the satisfaction comes around anyway, and it's addictive…


  1. I don't think "don't seek all your satisfaction here" means "don't seek or find any satisfaction here." Satisfying moments will come along; there's nothing wrong with enjoying them when they do. The danger is in pinning one's emotional stability upon having a steady diet of such interactions, or indeed on anything external and dependent on the behavior of others.